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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) fear or hatred of telling the truth

If there’s one thing the internet loves, it’s lists of phobias. See Exhibits A, B and C.

Lists like these are always popular online, but as fun and clickbaity as they are, from a linguistic or philological point of view they’re often not particularly reliable, nor particularly legitimate. That is to say, far from being lists of genuine phobias that you might find discussed and debated in decades-old psychiatric literature, they’re typically chock-full of words formed by attaching some vaguely classical-sounding root in front of the word phobia just to give the internet something to gawk at. (A process famously satirized in the ludicrous coinage arachibutyrophobia—the morbid fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth.)

We could do it right now, in fact. Fear of hawks? Hierakophobia. Derived from the Greek word for a hawk, hierakon. Fear of looking haggard? How about katavevlimenophobia. Derived from a Greek adjective, katavevlimenos, meaning ‘looking exhausted’. Does anyone suffer from those? Probably not. Is there any need for those words to exist? No to that, too. Does anyone even care? Well, no, probably not that either, really.

Anyway. Here at HH, we try to shy away from words that don’t have particularly legitimate stories, histories or attestations behind them. You might not find the words we talk about in the OED or Merriam-Webster, but that’s not to say they’re not established words of some kind, which have appeared in at least one reliable dictionary or article at some point in the past. As a consequence, alas, a lot of the internet’s favourite phobias just don’t make our final cut. (We’re looking at you, abibliophobia.) But every so often, one of two rather brilliant things happens.

On the one hand, a phobia pops up that sounds like it’s been made up just for fun, but turns out to be a perfectly legitimate word with a long and well-established history behind it. And on the other, a word that was originally coined fairly lightheartedly ends up being accepted into psychiatric literature, and becoming a more legitimized term as a result. This is when things get a little more interesting.

Take nomophobia, for instance. Coined as recently as 2008, it’s defined as the fear of not having access to a mobile phone signal; etymologically, it’s nothing more than a fairly clumsy contraction of ‘no-mobile phobia’. As daft a term as that might sound, however, the psychiatric literature on nomophobia is growing, and from those fairly non-serious beginnings it’s since become a fairly well established word.

The same goes for coulrophobia, the fear of clowns. The Oxford English Dictionary traces that back no further than 1997, when it appeared in an article titled ‘34 Reasons Why You Should Hate Clowns’, on a fairly questionable web server called alt.tasteless.jokes. Jump forward a few decades, and you’ll now find it listed in psychological dictionaries, and can head to Google Scholar to read academic papers with titles like ‘Coulrophobia: How Irrational is Fear of Clowns?’ and ‘Coulrophobia: An Investigation of Clinical Features.’

The opposite is true of words like ergophobia, the morbid fear of going to work. That might sound like a flippant term coined to describe the modern commuter’s hatred of the rat race, but look it up in a dictionary and you’ll find its earliest attestation was in the hallowed British Medical Journal in 1905.

So just because a phobia word sounds jocular and throwaway doesn’t necessarily mean that it is. Which brings us to veritaphobia.

Defined as the fear of telling the truth, this word caused quite a stir over on Twitter the other day, and led to several accusations that we’d either made it up, or else (in possibly the most patronizing comment we’ve ever had) mistaken a movie title on the IMDB as a dictionary entry. “VERITAPHOBIA is the name of a film, and that’s about it,” the comment read. “Not in the OED, nobody uses it. It’s not a word.”

Firstly, no one gets to decide what is and isn’t a word. Secondly, sit down.

We’re still trying to get to the bottom of this one, but the earliest we’ve been able to trace veritaphobia back so far is 1937, when it was used in an article published in the journal Science Progress. So it’s not in the OED, no. But that’s not to say that it doesn’t have almost a century of legitimate use behind it, hence its appearance on Haggard Hawks.

Etymologically, admittedly, it’s a bit of a mess. Veritaphobia is a chimeric word, inartfully mixing Latin (in this case, the Latin word for truth, veritas) with Greek (phobos, meaning fear). A better name for this might ultimately be alethophobia, which uses the Greek for truth, alitheia, alongside its fellow Greek root; indeed, that’s a term with an even more considerable history behind it, dating back to 1848 at least.

So. Long story short, yes this is a legitimate term. No, it wouldn’t have appeared on Haggard Hawks if it were not. Yes, it’s still a bit of a mess. But hey, who are we to judge?

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